The teaching of Modern Greek language and literature at Harvard dates back to 1828, when Colonel Alexander Negris, a veteran of the Greek War of Independence, became the first Instructor of Modern Greek.
An entry in the College Records of 15 September, 1828 reads as follows: “Any students who wish, may be permitted to attend the instruction of Mr. Negris in the Modern Greek, at such times as not to interfere with their regular exercises.” In the same year, to address the needs of his students, Colonel Negris published his Grammar of the Modern Greek Language (Boston, 1828), the first grammar of Modern Greek to be printed in the United States. In the prologue of this book, dated October 3rd 1828, he writes: “Amidst my numerous troubles, isolated, deprived of my homeland, relatives and friends, only consoles me the study of my language in which the arts and sciences were born, a study cultivated in a new hemisphere of the globe. And my only aspiration for now is limited to my ability to say that, first myself among all lovers of knowledge and the arts, I instigated in the Americans the desire to learn the vernacular.”
Colonel Negris’ successor, Evangelinos Apostolides Sophocles (c. 1807-1883), was instrumental not only in the continued teaching of Modern Greek at Harvard, but also in the development of the entire Program of Modern Greek Studies and its extensive and unique collections of rare books and manuscripts. With the vigorous support of the ardent philhellene Cornelius Conway Felton (1807-1862), Eliot Professor of Greek from 1834 and President of the College from 1860, Evangelinos Apostolides Sophocles received the first official appointment in Modern Greek Studies at Harvard. He was named Tutor of Modern Greek at Harvard in 1842, “a position which led to what was probably the first tenured appointment in Modern Greek in the Western World” (Alexiou 13).
In 1860 he was promoted to Professor of Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Greek (the first post of its kind), which he held until his death in 1883. For over four decades, and at a most turbulent time for Greece, Sophocles worked diligently on the Greek language and its history, winning everyone’s respect and admiration for his erudition, wit, kindness, and even for his many eccentricities, such as his love for the chickens which he had surrounding him in his small apartment in Holworthy Hall. Soon, a personal myth was created around his name that prompted his friend, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to say that: “[Sophocles] makes Diogenes a possibility.”
The distinguished Neohellenist, Dirk C. Hesseling, recognizing Sophocles’ pioneering work on Modern Greek Letters, later called him “the first Neohellenic scholar.” Among Sophocles’ major works are the following: A Romaic Grammar, Accompanied by a Chrestomathy with a Vocabulary (Hartford, 1842); History of the Greek Alphabet, with Remarks on Greek Orthography and Pronunciation (Cambridge, 1848); Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods, from B.C. 146 to A.D. 1100 (Boston, 1870).
Aristides Phoutrides (1887-1923) was the next scholar of importance for the Program of Modern Greek Studies. In addition to his pioneering translations of Modern Greek Literature, he was the first in the United States to publish significant critical works on Modern Greek Letters. He also established one of the first Greek student organizations in the United States, Helikon (1911-1918).
Trained in the Classics at Harvard (A.B. summa cum laude 1911, Ph.D. 1915) ,Phoutrides taught Greek and Latin here until 1917 and again in 1921. The same year he left for Yale, where he taught until his sudden and untimely death in the summer of 1923. Despite the brevity of his life, Phoutrides won numerous distinctions and awards. His contribution to the study of Modern Greek literature and folklore was significant. His personal acquaintance with the poet Kostis Palamas, who led Phoutrides from his initial support of puristic Greek (kathareuousa) to an appreciation of demotic Greek, had great impact on the formation of his intellectual and scholarly identity.
In addition to scholarship, Phoutrides devoted himself to creative writing. His literary works, ranging from poetry to short stories and drama, were all written in English and published in various periodicals of the time. On May 21st, 1916 the Boston Herald wrote: “Aristides E. Phoutrides is one of the great poets of the future.” After his death his widow, Margaret Garrison Phoutrides, donated part of his personal library to the Harvard College Library, and also endowed a scholarship in her husband’s memory.
With the establishment of the George Seferis Chair of Modern Greek Studies in 1977, the teaching of, and academic research on Modern Greek Literature and Culture at Harvard experienced an unprecedented flourishing. Named after the famous 1963 Nobel-laureate Greek poet and funded by Greek monies, the Chair became the first at any American University to be dedicated to Modern Greek Studies.
Harvard was selected because it was “the ideal place,” according to Professor and Greek Minister of Civilization and Culture, Constantine A. Trypanis: “the University has both a good collection of Modern Greek books, and programs to study areas near Greece.” The Chair’s first incumbent was George P. Savidis, who initiated a program of undergraduate and graduate courses, aptly suited to the requirements of students from a wide range of literary and linguistic disciplines. He also laid solid foundations for the study of Modern Greek Literature as one of the three possible components for the doctoral degree in Comparative Literature.
After securing the establishment of the George Seferis Chair of Modern Greek Studies on a full-time basis, the second incumbent of the Chair, Professor Margaret Alexiou, expanded its Program both at the undergraduate and graduate level. A Ph.D. Program in Modern Greek Studies was added within the Department of the Classics, while the number of doctoral candidates studying Modern Greek Literature in the Department of Comparative Literature increased significantly.
Furthermore, at the undergraduate level, Modern Greek courses became relevant and attractive to majors and concentrators in other fields, such as the Classics, Folklore and Mythology, Women’s Studies, Religion, Anthropology, and History, as well as to students in the Core Curriculum and in the Harvard Extension School. In the period 1986-2000, during which Alexiou was head of the George Seferis Chair, the Program of Modern Greek Studies at Harvard gained in visibility.
In 2000, Panagiotis Roilos, Professor of Modern Greek Studies and of Comparative Literarure, succeeded Margaret Alexiou as head of the Program of Modern Greek Studies at Harvard. Since then the Program has been greatly expanded, not only in terms of curriculum and student enrolment, but also of further academic initiatives, which promote scholarship, interdisciplinary collaboration, mentorship, and publication in the field of Modern Greek Studies, all the while strengthening our pioneering emphasis on and development of the language component of the Program.
NOTE: This text has been based on archival research by Dr. Vassiliki Rapti and on the following bibliography:
Alexiou, Margaret. “Introduction” in Five Centuries of Books and manuscripts in Modern Greek: A Catalogue of an Exhibition at the Houghton Library December 4, 1987 through February 17, 1988. Cambridge: The Harvard College Library, 1990. 3-15.
Layton, Evro. “The Modern Greek Collection in the Harvard College Library,” Harvard Library Bulletin 19 (1971), 221-43.
Negris, Alexander. A Grammar of the Greek Language with an Appendix Containing Original Specimens of Prose and Verse. Boston: Hilliard, Gray, Little and Wilkins, 1828.
Soulis, C. George. “Ευαγγελινός Aποστολίδης Σοφοκλής,” Aθηνά, LVI (1952), 125-141.